October 22, 2014

In Defense Of Snark

The recent announcement that Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party (USA), creator of the New Synthesis ™, and the only dude with the chops to save our species from collapsing into barbarism and lead it into the bright communist future would be making his first publicly announced appearance in the US in over 30 years has occasioned some comment.

After decades of exile, rumors of sightings, and long, long recorded speeches purportedly delivered in secret conclaves, it was hardly surprising that there would be skepticism and humorous commentary by that small section of the left that remembers him or has followed his career.

Then, though, his acolytes in the RCP advanced a bridge too far. Earlier this month, an anonymous article on their website promoting his upcoming talk at Riverside Church in Manhattan compared the chance to attend with a hypothetical opportunity to see Jimi Hendrix play live in his prime. (Read it here.) As TV Guide used to say: Hilarity ensues.

So brutal (and funny) has been the mockery that the online edition of RCP organ Revolution now contains a little slogan box proclaiming

Damn, can't these folks get anything right?

The culture of snark strikes me as a positive and transformative development in the youth culture of the 21st century. The last couple decades of the 20th century were dominated by cheap irony. Everything was equal because everything was worthless. You could do any stupid thing you wanted and simultaneously embrace it and proclaim your superiority to it. Wear a backwards gimme cap with a confederate flag on it and blast Public Enemy out of a boom box. Cheer, ironically, at ultra-patriotic films while stuff blew up. Or people. If you were around and paying attention then, you know what I mean. Irony's slogan is a world-weary "Whatever" with a knowing smirk.

Snark may share an evolutionary ancestry with pure irony, but the two occupy very different branches on the tree of worldviews. Its apostles in our era are Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. It is not a declaration of the equivalence of everything, because it has a place to stand—a standpoint, if you prefer. The snark stance carries with it the idea that things don't have to be as they are, and, further, that there are forces responsible for them being as they are or getting worse. Those forces should be mocked, be exposed and be opposed. They are the target of snark.

I'm not saying it's revolutionary. It's not. Hell, it's not like I've thought through this little exercise in cultural typology in any deep or systematic way. It may be entirely wrong-headed. But until argued out of it, this is where I stand.

And if that means being snarky about "the Jimi Hendrix of the Revolution," so be it.  At least I'm not wearing the peculiar little pin of Avakian the RCP made--the tiny featureless, text-less one which bears the image known as The Blob--trying to make some kind of contentless ironic statement.

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September 22, 2014

Now It's 400,000 Climate Marchers? Puh-leeze...

Okay, I'm going to keep this short.

I thought I was done with the topic last night when I posted a piece here pegging the crowd in yesterday's nifty People's Climate March at over 100,000, a very impressive turnout, and explaining how that figure was arrived at. Toward the end, I criticized an estimate attributed to March organizers of 310,000.

I woke up to discover my blogpost had generated a certain amount of interest and a bunch of Facebook comments They were even mainly favorable.

I also found that the organizers had jacked their "official" count up to 400,000. I thought, that’s just silly. Maybe they're counting all the folks who took part in demos around the world, like this one in Tromsø, Norway that my friend Jon-arne sent me shots of.

Nope, according to the NY Times. "Organizers, using data provided by 35 crowd spotters and analyzed by a mathematician from Carnegie Mellon University, estimated that 311,000 people marched the route." So far, no indication of whether the unnamed numbers cruncher also bumped her figures up by 89,000 overnight.

400,000 "marched the route"? A convenient number, on account of the March took just a hair over 4 hours to pass our vantage point on 53rd and 6th. So call it 100,000 people an hour. That works out to--lessee, strike the last zeroes—1,666 people passing a given point every single minute that the March lasted. This simply did not happen. If you weren't there, look at the photos on the front cover of today's Times or browse around on Flickr. That kind of density isn't there, even if all the people had been sprinting. Which they weren't.

So what? It feels good to see Fox News saying 400,000 marched, right? (Of course I don't believe what they say about anything else, but still...) Where's the downside of inflating crowd figures, some friends ask. For a more rounded argument about this, check my blogpost from last year, "Let's Stop Inflating Crowd Counts, Eh?"

In practical terms, I'm inclined to think the blowback comes almost immediately. We want to take the momentum, the high spirits and determination of the People's Climate March and convert it into continued action. Of course only a certain percentage of those who marched will go home and plan local protests or build groups or  promote petitions or lobby Congresscritters or register green voters or sabotage pipelines anyhow. But it's not hard to predict with a high degree of precision how many of the 275,000 phantom marchers will be galvanized into action. That is bound to dishearten not only the people who make up the base of the movement, but even those organizers and leaders who go for the okey-doke. 

 It's Amilcar Cabral time again: 
Tell no lies. Claim no easy victories.

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September 21, 2014

Once More on Counting Crowds at Demos

[UPDATE: This caused some controversy when it was first posted, so I wrote a shorter--and crankier--follow-up piece a day later, which has a few additional thoughts.]

What a splendid march!

Props first of all to the 100,000 plus people who came to NYC from around the US (hello, South Dakota Quakers!) and around the world to stand up against the carbon-burning—and not coincidentally, capitalist--economy that is destroying the habitability of the planet for an awful lot of the present biosphere, including humans. You tended a tad toward the white end of the spectrum to be sure and were perhaps a bit naive, but you were young, you were jazzed and you were mighty imaginative in your posters and costumes and slogans.

Props too to the organizers who turned out all these folks on a very tight time-line, who made excellent use of the Internet and social media to build the protest, and who organized a very smoothly run march.

But let's face facts, nobody is much interested my review of the People's Climate March. What you want to know from me is how many people were there. I will give you two answers:

1. There were well over 100,000 people, likely a bit upwards of 120,000 in the march.

2. No way in hell were there 310,000 people on that march.

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July 29, 2014

The War Over Gaza: A Battlefield Report from the Facebook Front

This title may seem snarky, but it is deadly serious. What the Israeli Defense Forces call Operation Protective Edge, the deadly assault on the population of Gaza, is the most important war so far in the social media era. And this is being forcefully brought to our attention in ways that are both political and personal, but in any case increasingly difficult to avoid.

And the part about a report from the battlefront? That's because I don't pretend this is a definitive or even a deep analysis. It is a quick battlefield bulletin that I hope will get other people to think about this and chip in their own thoughts and experiences.

From the personal

I have been in half a dozen conversations, actual voice to voice conversations, over the last two plus weeks which all centered around a single shared experience. Some friend--an old and dear comrade, or a high school classmate rediscovered in recent years through the magic of the intertubes, an in-law or maybe just some amusing Facebook "friend"--suddenly, unexpectedly, turns out to be a zionist, or perhaps an I’m-not-really-a-zionist equivocator who tut-tuts po-faced over Israel's slaughter of the innocents and suggests that it's really all Hamas's fault.

And how did we learn this? By a news story these friends share, a status report, a comment on a contentious thread. It's jarring, in some instances actually chilling, to find this deep difference. If we explore it, even tentatively, in an online thread or exchange of posts, we can feel the barriers going up. They may not be 20 feet high and made of concrete poured over rebar but they are real barriers, as real as bannings and unfriendings.

To the political

And these lost or damaged friendships, online or IRL, are, in one sense, casualties in one front in the war in Gaza. This not a front restricted to the Raleigh, NC-size, battered hellhole of a ghetto that is both home and prison camp to 1.8 million Palestinian men, women and children. It is a global battlefront, one in which many of us are, willy-nilly, combatants.

At the time Barack Obama took office and moved to ramp down the unjust and unjustifiable occupation of Iraq, there were about 50 million users registered on Facebook globally. Today there are a billion and a third! Twitter use wasn't even on the map.

Blogs, with few exceptions, have been correspondingly diminished as a locale for exchange of news and ideas, while Twitter seems less a replacement for and more of a compliment to Facebook-style social media. As for old skool broadcast news and dead-tree newspapers, they are pale shadows of their former selves. Breaking news comes to more and more people first through social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook.

I'm not saying this is the first war of the new era, Social media was how we tracked the Arab Spring. The continued catastrophic fighting on the Middle East and Ukraine are obvious recent examples.

But this war is one where the battle for public opinion is paramount. Israel is has been exceedingly nervous about social media for quite a while now and devotes considerable effort to promoting her foreign policy on it, though expending only a fraction of the total money it drops on other parts of its coordinated influence buying, lobbying and manifold other public relations (PR) efforts.

Still, those running Israeli social-media efforts, whether in the IDF, the foreign ministry or government-funded think tanks, are faced with a horrific problem. Israel's armed forces, among the largest and best equipped in the world, are engaged in a brutal assault on a poorly armed militia—and on everybody who lives in the same high-security prison camp with them. The photos of shattered children, mourning families, burning power plants, whole neighborhoods reduced to rubble tell a story very different from the one Israel has been promoting.

My neck of the FBosphere

I spend too much time on Facebook and I have a mess of FB "friends." True, many rarely post or even remember they are on. Others have been steered out of my line of sight by restrictive FB algorithms. As a result, most of the people whose stuff I see regularly tend to be folks who share my politics to one degree or another.

And I have found an intense spontaneous response to the assault on Gaza. Comrades and friends around the country have taken up the question in large numbers, posting and linking frequently. In fact, there have been more pleasant surprises, folk I hadn't really expected to see jump in on something like this choosing to stand up, than the disappointing moments I mentioned above.

I certainly have ramped it up, and, in doing so, have tried to develop a more systematic approach, which I will detail in another piece. A couple of my links to articles on the origins of this attack have been shared by dozens of people. And naturally I've tried to promote demonstrations and other protests, and share reports on them.

Israel's strategy

I mentioned the importance the Israeli state and establishment and allied organizations globally place on this battle. The Hebrew term "hasbara" means explanation, but has come to have connotations of PR or propaganda. The IDF maintains a Hasbara War Room (and has for over a year) where college students fluent in a variety of languages sit at 400 computers pretending to be something other than paid advocates of the official Israeli line. Trolls, in other words. Some argue points. Some seek to disrupt threads with ad hominem attacks and nonsensical claims. Some are "concern trolls" who express sympathy for the Gazans and go on to urge capitulation to Israel as the only practical option.

Of course, most of the defenders of Israel one finds on the net are not necessarily paid or sitting in a "war room." Rather they are individual zionists who feel their cause passionately and put it forward with varying degrees of coherence. The arguments do have a certain sameness to them, though. This was masterfully summed up six years ago, by the anti-zionist website Jews sans frontieres who lay out a four point template for  pro-Israel argument:

1. We rock
2. They suck
3. You suck
4. Everything sucks

Besides being extremely funny, in the "If you see me laughing, well, I'm laughing just to keep from crying" sense, it touches on something very profound. Israel's minimum program is to get people to turn their heads away from the suffering of the Palestinian people. Israel holds the military whip hand. If global public opinion doesn't bring pressure to bear on their government and on the US government, Israel's main enabler, they can keep committing these crimes indefinitely.

The Palestinian side

So in a sense our job is to keep the suffering of the Palestinians front and center. Supporters globally have been doing this in recent weeks, but let's not forget that we are functioning as allies of those who live on the real life battlefront.

There are no 400-computer war rooms under central government direction in Gaza (or anyplace else) but there are people with cell phones who can take pictures and post reports, and they have truth on their side. I was reminded of this by a courageous young woman from Ramallah with whom I've had several on-line exchanges on Facebook, We'am Hamdan has been promoting the Palestinian cause on the internet since long before the assault on Gaza, "because the conflict affects my being as a Palestinian living in the occupied territories of the West Bank."

We'am works with an informal crew in Gaza and the West Bank who had a brilliant idea. They started a Facebook page entitled Humans of Palestine. The name tells the story—it was based on the hugely popular internet phenomenon Humans of New York, which couples a snapshot of a person or two and a comment about their life in their own words.
The idea of the page was to reflect the dreams of Palestinian people and their daily lives. But since the offensive started, the page aims at restoring the humanity that is often stripped away when Palestinians are reduced to calculative deaths, forgettable names, and burned and mutilated bodies, rather than people who shared loved ones, stories, dreams and aspirations.
This is a goal that I, for one, intend to learn from and to promote in my little section of the battle front.

Is it worth it?

We'am Hamdan can have moments of self-doubt about the value of her efforts. "Sometimes I feel that it's a stupid virtual battle and it won't change much. Sometimes I feel, No! It's very important to raise awareness within the international community."

Like her, like many of us, I sometimes wonder how much is being accomplished. But until I find a better way of tackling the job, I plan to continue, just as I plan to continue going to demonstrations that the media and the political establishment do their level best to ignore.

One way I hope to do that is with two follow-up pieces to this, one on how I am currently approaching the battlefield in practical terms and one on what happens when, inevitably, the IDF pulls back, leaving ruins in its wake, and Palestinian suffering continues while the world's gaze drifts elsewhere…

I welcome your thoughts on this topic.

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July 17, 2014

Now That's What I Call A Young Adult Book!

It's a dream come true. You know how there's a book you know exists but somehow you can never find it? Well, I am thrilled to say that thanks to the magic of Teh Intertubes and the vagaries of US copyright law, I have finally been able to read The Boy Troopers On Strike Duty, and it's a corker.

Let me back up and take a running start. Have you ever read any of the old Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew books, the originals I mean, not the weak tea retreads from the '60s and later? You may recall that the villains were generally swarthy "Dagos" or perhaps sinister Slavs, and our plucky WASP protagonists would best them with grit, strength and ingenuity.

There were scads of similar series, some a bit more proletarian in flavor, I have before me here as I type a copy of one of the volumes in Allen Chapman's Railroad Series, which starts with the delightfully titled RALPH OF THE ROUNDHOUSE Or, Bound to Become a Railroad Man.

I read, back in my teen years, one of the Boy Troopers Series, by one Clair W. Hayes, about two fine young fellows who serve as valued allies of the Pennsylvania State Troopers, one of the first such forces. The other titles in the series were listed and one was The Boy Troopers On Strike Duty. Decades passed and I never came across a copy of this promising title, until last night. An idle search for one prompted Comrade Google to direct me to a very nice scan of the original 1922 edition, all set up for quick reading, full screen.

My heart sank when I saw on the cover and again on the title page The Boy Troopers On Duty. What happened to the Strike part?  Happily, when the story starts on page 3, the title is there again with the fateful word restored and the second paragraph takes us to the streets of a Pittsburgh suburb, Wilmercairn, streets crowded with "foreigners."
Until the day before, these men--or a good many of them, at least--had been apparently faithful employes of the Wilmercairn Steel Tube Company.

Today they were strikers--a small fraction of the steelworkers in the Pennsylvania-Ohio-West Virginia Districts--who had joined a walkout for more money and shorter hours. The total number of men on strike in these districts ran into the millions.
I doubt I'm spoiling anything for potential readers when I say, with regret, that despite this promising start, the working class does not seize state power in the region by the end of the book.

However, the strikers make a good run at it, planning an armed attack to seize the main mill and deploying a couple of machine guns in carrying it out. Not, mind you, that these foreigners could have come up with this on their own. (And generic foreigners is what they remain until page 123, where we finally learn that the "firebrands" are "composed entirely of Hungarians, Slovaks and other foreigners.") No indeed, they were stirred up by homegrown American "professional agitators":
These walking delegates were enlarging on the supposed grievances of the foreign strikers.
Alas, we are introduced to only one of these splendid gents and get no idea of his organizational affiliation or political views.

The factory managers, however, come up with a strategy better than their initially planned army of strikebreakers with the help of the heroes, Dick and Ralph: pitting true blue American workers against the foreigners by promising them much better pay and benefits. Although "there are a hundred 'Hunkies' in the mill to every American," the lads succeed in breaking the strike, with the aid of their state trooper buddies, after any number of fist fights, gun fights and narrow escapes. And the boss's daughter for romantic interest

Even so, it is a close thing and one can dream (even if one is not among the "Boys 12-16 Years of Age," who were the author's target audience).

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June 29, 2014

A Black Dyke Reflects on the Panthers

[It's Pride, at least here in NYC. In honor of that fact, I am posting here an article that Comrade Google suggests is not otherwise available on the Internet. It appeared as one of a stunning roundup of pieces by Black LGBTQ writers in The Advocate in one issue in the 1990s, under the irresistible title "Black Out."

By me, they should all be online, but I am posting this one for obvious reasons. It is by Alycee Lane, then a grad student at UCLA. In it she discusses what the Black Panther Party had meant to her—as an elementary school "baby dyke" in Buffalo and then later as she learned about Huey Newton's famous speech in which he welcomed the women's and gay liberation movements and called on the BPP to work with them. That was in 1970 when the modern queer movement was first erupting in all its Stonewall-fueled glory—and when many other self-styled revolutionary and socialist organizations shied away from it, or adopted appallingly homophobic stances. 

There's a lot about our history to be learned from this short piece, and there's always a chance that it won't be up at Fire on the Mountain forever, so if you agree with me on its importance, I encourage you to save it and to make sure others have access.]

The Black Panther Party And Gay Liberation

By Alycee Lane

I really wanted to be a member of the Black Panther Party when I was younger. I imagined myself one day galvanizing the other kids in my neighborhood in Buffalo, N.Y., and conducting a righteous raid on that one house I passed on the way to my integrated school—that horrifying white house that donned, hatefully, a sprawling banner stained with the curse WHITE POWER. Yeah, I was going to conduct a righteous raid. I figured this was the Panther thing to do, especially since I had seen the brothers walking proudly with their guns, policing the police, who were, in my young opinion, somehow connected to the curse.

In spite of their guns and "baaad black man" attitudes, it never occurred to me to feel intimidated by or afraid of the Panthers. For they never failed to greet me with love—"Good morning, little sister" and "How are you doing in school? Making those grades? Learning about your history?" I simply wanted to be with and be like them. I didn't know about the Panther

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June 28, 2014

For My 'rades in Jackson, A Poem of Mississippi Summer

[Some comrades of mine are among those gathered this weekend in Jackson MS for a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer, or Mississippi Summer as we called it then. I post this poem for them.

I wasn't in Mississippi that summer. I was fourteen, not what the organizers were looking for, and my mother didn't think much of the idea either. So I followed it in the news.

When James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman disappeared on the night of June 21, we all pretty much knew what had happened. By a week later, 50 years ago tonight, there was no doubt.

This poem by John Beecher, a white southerner, a communist and a people's poet, locates Summer, 1964 in the long battle for freedom. For me the closing stanza conjures up 1964 as little else can, save only the civil rights anthems we sang, North and South, as the freedom struggle advanced.]

For the 60th Anniversary of the Beecher Memorial
United Church of Christ in New Orleans, Louisiana,
October 25, 1964

Old church with the same name as my own
you and I were born in the same year
It has taken two generations to bring us together
Now here we are in New Orleans
meeting for the first time
I hope I can say the right thing
what the man you are named for
might have said on one of his better days
He was my great-great-uncle
but come to think of it
he was instrumental in my founding too
Rolled in a tube at home I have a certificate
signed by Henry Ward Beecher
after he had united my grandfather and grandmother
in the holy bonds of matrimony
at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn
The year was 1858
and James Buchanan was President
The South was riding high
making the North catch and send back its escaped Negroes
and it looked to most people
as if slavery was going to last forever
but not to Henry Ward Beecher
which I suppose is why you named your church for him
He certainly helped change all that
together with his brother Edward and his sister
whose name was Harriet
and Mr. Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant
and a large number of young men
who wound up under the long rows of crosses
at Gettysburg Chickamauga Cold Harbor and such places

Nineteen hundred and four was a better year
than 1858
and the building of this church was a sign of it
It was no longer a crime to meet and worship by yourselves
with your own preacher
your own beautiful songs
with no grim-lipped regulators to stand guard over you
nobody breaking up your services with a bull-whip
Yes this was some better
Booker T. Washington was in his hey-day
the apostle of segregation
"We can be in all things social as separate as the fingers"
he said and Mr. Henry Grady the Atlanta editor
applauded him to the echo
as did all the other good white folks around
and they said
"This boy Booker has a head on his shoulders
even if it is a nappy one."
Dr. Washington was 48 years old at the time
but you know how southern whites talk
a man is a boy all his life if he's black
Dr. Washington was a pragmatist
And settled for what he could get
When they announced that dinner was served in the dining car
he ate his cindery biscuits out of a paper bag
and when George the porter made up berths in the Pullman
he sat up all night in the Jim Crow coach
Because of his eminently practical attitude
Dr. Washington was successful in shaking down
The big white philanthropists
Like C.P. Huntington the railroad shark
or was it octopus
and Negro education was on its way.

Old church
since 1904
you and I have seen some changes
slow at first
now picking up speed
I have just come from Mississippi
where I saw churches like this one
burned to the ground
or smashed flat with bombs
almost like Germany when I was there in 1945
only these Negroes were not beaten people
They sang in the ashes and wreckage
such songs as We Shall Overcome
and Let My Little Light Shine
O Freedom! they sang
Before I'll be a slave
I'll be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free
They sang I'm going to sit at the welcome table
I'm going to live in the Governor's mansion
one of these days
I heard three mothers speak
who had made the President listen
and "almost cry, or he made like he was about to cry"
when they told him how their homes had been dynamited
"It's not hard to be brave"
one of these mothers said
"but it's awful hard to be scared"
I expect see her statue on a column in the square
in place of the Confederate soldier's
one of these days

Slavery looked pretty permanent in 1858
when it had just five years to go
and now in 1964
the White Citizens' Councils and the Ku Klux Klan
think they can keep their kind of half-slave South forever
Their South isn't on the way out
It's already dead and gone
only they don't know it
They buried it themselves
in that earthwork dam near Philadelphia Mississippi
when they thought they were getting rid of the bodies

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